Here’s a photo I took two years ago:
Have a close look for a moment, click on it to get a bigger version if you like. Do you see something strange?
No? How about in this one, zooming a little closer in on what originally caught my eye:
Give up? Well, here it is center-stage in all its majesty:
A three-leaved nettle! Usually the leaves go up in alternate pairs on opposite sides of the square stalk, and looking at them from above gives the impression of four-sidedness, as you can see from the other specimens pictured above. However, this one particular nettle (and another sibling I later found not too far away) had leaves going up in groups of three, but also alternating so that leaves from the higher stage fit ‘in between’ those beneath, thus maximising the sunlight exposure for the whole plant.
Pretty cool, no? And I never would have noticed if I hadn’t been foraging from the patch to use the nettles in teas and cooked up in various stews and dishes. It really illustrates what Becky Lerner has called the ‘super power’ of the forager’s eye, when you begin to look really closely at your surroundings and start noticing all manner of things that remain invisible to most people. Little clues that lead to long stories – histories really – of what has happened in that particular place and how it connects to hundreds, maybe thousands of factors which make it totally unique and inform its interconnected relationship to all adjoining spaces, as well as the beings that pass through them (including you!) This particular history could almost have been evolutionary. Was I witnessing the chance mutation that could lead to a whole new subspecies of nettle, or even fundamentally alter the basic structure of the existing species, if it proved more adaptable in the long term? Call me a plant geek, but I think that’s pretty amazing.
So, with that preamble out the way, here’s something I wrote the following year for inclusion in a book that’s just been published called Playing For Time. I wanted to put the original piece up here because there’s a lot that got trimmed off for the final edit (although more went in than I expected, after the editor Charlotte Du Cann told me she and author Lucy Neal just wanted to use my burdock photo and some text as an ‘extended caption’ – so I’m not complaining!) and the overall tone came across as breathless and ‘inspirational’ rather than my usual measured, realism-infused style. Reading back over it, I see there were quite a few important points there which I want to start making more often about the social context in which activities like foraging and herbalism take place, and how these might eventually coalesce into a political movement of some kind to challenge the absurd and highly damaging ways of accessing food and medicine which have been forced upon us by the status quo and the state-corporate and proprietary powers that benefit from its ruinous continuation. Anyway, here it is (with permission):
It’s been around eight years now since I started to take an active interest in wild plants and foraging. Nearly two years out of uni, living back in the old home with my parents, having quit my job in retail just after Christmas, I needed something to get me outside – out of the house and out of my overactive head. Foraging was an obvious choice because a) it wouldn’t cost any money, b) it fit with my greeny/lefty politics of sustainability and DIY self-sufficiency (which I had spent about as much time and effort developing over the course of three years as I had done studying for my degree), c) after too much time in cities it sent me back into comparatively wild places – an appreciation of which my parents had successfully nurtured during my childhood, and d) – something they definitely never encouraged – it allowed me to at least pretend that I could say ‘fuck you’ to the working world, be economically invisible, have no need to rely on capitalist modes of production, basically do a Tolstoy and choose simple menial work instead of having my intellect harnessed to the project of destroying the world. I never pushed towards these goals with 100 per cent dedication but early successes, especially with potential staples like Burdock root, acorns and hazelnuts, gave me a feeling of security with the knowledge that I could go a long way in that direction if I, personally, chose to.
Other experiences with the medicinal side of things gave me a further sense of power and control over my own life: if something went wrong I didn’t necessarily have to go straight to a medical professional to be supplied with synthetic drugs or put through complex, machine-based treatments. Instead, I could look up my symptoms, read or ask trusted people which herbs were considered suitable in treating them (or in holistic terms, suitable for supporting the body’s own attempt to heal itself), go out to harvest them and see if I could successfully treat myself. My surefire remedies so far include Bramble root tincture for diarrhea, Elderflower and Yarrow tea for colds and ‘flu, and St. John’s Wort oil for all kinds of muscular aches and pains. Again, I’m not saying that I would never go to my GP, even for something very serious, just that it was a nice feeling knowing that I had a different option available to me, and that it would grow in strength and capability if I continued to use it and learn from the experiences over time.
So far so good on the personal level, but lately I’ve had the persistent feeling that more is needed to release the true potential or promise of foraging as a social, even cultural activity. So far the mainstream awakening towards wild foods and medicines rather fits Dmitry Orlov’s assertion that ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies’ – people with the privilege of time and independent means (eg: a family who are willing to support you and provide a roof over your head while you ‘find yourself’) to dabble with these things and maybe come up with a few successful dishes using wild ingredients which will get made more than once. This is a world away from what foraging meant, and continues to mean, to the world’s indigenous people and even our own recent peasant-farmer ancestors (wild herbs such as Nettle, Sorrel and Alexanders often went into the daily stew or ‘potage’ sustaining medieval agricultural labourers). They have a history of close association with these plants and a knowledge of how to use them passed down through the generations. Even their spiritual traditions pay homage to them, with songs being sung to encourage fruitfulness and to give thanks to the spirits for their generosity. An example of this surviving in Britain is the ‘wassail‘ tradition in which apple trees are implored to bear a good harvest:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Organised wild food walks share knowledge and create bonds between people in such a way as to foster the growth of this kind of culture, but somehow paying for access to this knowledge has always felt wrong to me (which is why I’ve only led a few myself on a free/donation basis), and there’s the danger of playing to the crowd willing to pay the most, ie: wealthy hobbyists from the city looking for a stimulating day out. A less leader-oriented ‘skillshare’ type event would seem more promising for nurturing the revolutionaries we so desperately need to reshape our whole attitude and relationship to the other-than-human world. This would not exclude the people who could benefit most from supplementing their diets with nutritious wild edibles and health-giving medicinal plants, all available for the simple energy costs of gathering and processing and often not so very far from their own front doors.
These days foraging is less something I actively set out to do so much as something that happens almost incidentally as I go about my day-to-day business. It helps that I work outdoors as a gardener, where I often experience the pleasure of being paid to harvest my own food (aka ‘weeding’ or ‘raking up debris’). But I have a little section of bridleway which go through twice a day on my commute. Usually I manage to allow five minutes or so to get off my bike and bag up a few things or even graze on them directly – Cleavers, Nettles (you can eat them raw with the right technique!), Cuckooflower, young Bramble shoots, Hawthorn and Rose leaves early in the season; haws, rosehips, blackberries, elderberries, acorns in the Autumn months… It’s amazing how much you can get from so little time, and it makes for a nice settling ritual to start and finish the day. I see all the seasonal changes, watch all kinds of wildlife, and observe the plants through their yearly cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Last Spring I noticed a nettle with leaves going up the stalk in groups of three rather than the standard alternating pair. It totally made my day, and I made sure to seek it out regularly and check on its mutant progress for the rest of the year, speaking reassuring words to hopefully aid its brave experiment.
I do recommend the book, which I’ve been working through in brief sittings after receiving my copy at the launch up in London (thanks Lucy, a really pleasant evening). There’s loads of beautiful things in there, both described and photographed with essays from activists and writers, explanations from artists and reports from community organisers, mostly under the Transition Town umbrella. Charlotte Du Cann wrote a nice piece about it here, and her blog is well worth checking out too, if you click around from that link.
And the nettle? Well, it didn’t make an appearance last year, but just look who I found poking her head out the other day in near exactly the same spot:
You little beauty!